What’s the wisdom on… enquiry questions

Teaching History feature

Published: 27th March 2020

One way of explaining what is meant by an enquiry question is to start with what it is not.

What's the Wisdom On... is a short guide providing new history teachers with an overview of the ‘story so far’ of practice-based professional thinking about a particular aspect of history teaching. It synthesises key messages from Teaching History articles, blogs and other publications. The guide includes practical suggestions suitable for any key stage and signposts basic reading essentials for new professionals. See all guides in this series

This might seem perverse, but there is so much scope for confusion that it is worth drawing a clear distinction between different uses of the term ‘enquiry’. The curricular tradition within history of using carefully structured enquiries, driven by ‘enquiry questions’, is very different from enquiry approaches based on assumptions about independent discovery learning.

The distinction is so important that when the Department for Education appeared to confuse the two, the Historical Association (HA) insisted that it agree to a clarification. The HA made clear that the use of enquiry questions in history was originally developed,

“in direct opposition to the principles of ‘discovery learning’ and to the assumption that pupils would become effective independent thinkers simply by being given more independence…. A well-crafted enquiry explicitly facilitates a knowledge-rich approach to history and allows the teacher to guide the pupil through complex and contrary histories rather than leaving them to reach ill-informed judgements without adequate knowledge.” 

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